Bere / Bear Island (An tOileán Mór) (winter pop. 220), not far from the mouth of Bantry Bay, lies 1.5km / 1mi offshore from Castletown Berehaven on the Beara Peninsula.
Berehaven / Bere Haven is the stretch of water between the island and the shore.
Bere Island is six miles long and four miles wide. The highest point on the island is Knockanallig (270m).
Unlike many of the other islands off the Irish coast, the inhabitants of Bere Island are native English speakers. Irish ceased to be the spoken language towards the end of the C19th.
Bere Island is served by two ferries, which can carry light vehicles as well as foot passengers. The trip takes ten minutes. The island ferry terminal is Lawrence Cove, toward the eastern end of the island, where there is also a modern marina.
Rerrin (Raerainn) extends from the harbour to the military buildings at the top of the hill. The village has a pub, a general store/post office and a coffee shop/restaurant.
Ballinakilla is the location of St Michael’s church (RC) and graveyard. Nearby there is a pub/general store. Work has begun to convert the old national school into a Heritage and Exhibition Centre; the inauguration is planned for May 2008.
Early traces of human occupation include Megalithic tombs and Standing Stones.
The island was held by the O’Sullivan Bere clan until their power was finally broken in 1602, a year that also saw the first military interest in the island when Sir George Carew ordered a road to be built to transport the English forces to the Siege of Dunboy.
The French having failed in their attempted 1796 invasion, and their subsequent efforts in support of the 1798 Rebellion also having been frustrated, it was rather belatedly decided to improve the defences of Bere Haven. In 1803 Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Calder, who commanded the naval squadron based in Bantry Bay, sought protection for his victuallers and store ships based at the Berehaven anchorage. Four Martello Towers were constructed by 2nd February 1805, probably the earliest to be completed in Ireland; two remain intact. In addition, a signal tower, a barracks for two officers and 150 men, a quay and storehouses were also constructed.
Although Bantry Bay in general, and particularly Berehaven, continued as an important base for the Royal Navy, not much happened on the island in military terms for a long time after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
At the time of the 1841 census the population of the island was 2,122 but by 1851 it had decreased to 1,454, due to famine and cholera during The Great Famine. It is unlikely that the islanders received much succour from the British militia, who referred to the locals as “aboriginals”.
The population decline continued in line with the national trend for emigration throughout the C19th and C20th. Some islanders ended up in South America, where their descendants founded the First Cattleman’s Bank of Argentina and made their fortune in banking and ranching. To this day, they speak with the rich intonation of their ancestors.
The long period of military stagnation came to a sudden end on 17th March 1898, when a compulsory purchase order was raised on large areas of the island in order to extend and reinforce the port for a revolutionary new generation of battleships (called Dreadnoughts, from Admiral Fisher’s motto “Fear God and Dread Naught“) which needed 48 hours of elaborate protection while maintenance routines were carried out and the vessels got up sufficient steam in their boilers. This phase of construction saw the installation of seven gun batteries. The fortifications are still in existence today but are in a state of disrepair and not safe to enter.
During WWI, it is said that you could walk to Castletownbere across the decks of anchored warships. Bere Island was the base of the British Atlantic Fleet and was also used as the operating base for a flotilla of small boats and trawlers engaged in anti-U-Boat activities. A 67-acre station sent up kite balloons during the day, each with a wicker basket suspended from wire in which an observer with a telescope looked out for enemy shipping or U-Boats. They were a common sight in Bantry Bay until 1919. A military hospital opened in 1915, to which many wounded were brought back from the trenches to recuperate before being sent home or back to war. There was also an army training camp; of the approximately 1,500 Fourth Connaught Rangers who set out from the island in July 1915, only 300 returned alive, many of them badly wounded.
In 1922, under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the British withdrew from most of Ireland, but retained three deepwater harbours at Berehaven, Queenstown (Cobh) and Lough Swilly. These “Treaty Ports” remained Royal Navy bases until the UK government very reluctantly agreed to hand them over in 1938 to the embryonic Irish naval force, which played no part in WWII. This was fortunate for the islanders, who would otherwise have been bombed, but most unfortunate for the rest of Europe; as a result, Allied ships crossing the Atlantic were sunk by German U-boat attacks which a British base on Ireland’s southwestern coast could have prevented. Thousands of seamen lost their lives, invaluable supplies were lost, and the war was unnecessarily prolonged, by Eamonn DeValera‘s narrow nationalism.
A very interesting book is Ted O’Sullivan‘s Bere Island – A Short History (1992), published by Inniscraggy Books and available locally or by Internet.